By Judith Opert Sandler and Gerald Wheeler
March 10, 2008
As 12,000 educators from Massachusetts and across the country gather in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, they will focus on science learning, hear from eminent researchers, and listen to business leaders’ call to train future scientists. Unfortunately, many will leave town asking why this country isn’t more serious about science.
Their week in Boston must not obscure a truth: there is a crisis in U.S. science education. Student performance is low, teacher content knowledge weak, and too often, science falls away amid competing priorities. In many schools it isn’t even taught: a recent report from the Center on Education Policy on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act found that 53 percent of the school districts surveyed reduced the time dedicated to elementary science by at least 75 minutes a week.
Science education must be ramped up, starting in the early grades, or not only will we produce fewer scientists or engineers, we will shortchange our young people who need to understand how the world works. Science skills are as essential as being able to read or add or subtract. Without them, how will our future voters understand, for example, stem cell research or protecting the environment without a strong science education? How will we produce the creators of a virtual society if we don’t boost technology skills? How can we thrive in a global economy if our citizens are not mathematically and scientifically competitive?
U.S. 15-year-olds ranked behind 16 of 30 industrialized nations in science literacy on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. At the same time, nearly 40 percent of American eighth graders are scoring below the basic level in national science assessments. This is clearly a national problem, and one that is also glaringly evident in Massachusetts classrooms. The Massachusetts 2006-07 Report Card showed 29 percent of eighth graders failed to meet state standards in mathematics, and one quarter failed to meet the standards in science.
How can we turn around these barely-passing grades? In a recent study commissioned by the Newton-based Education Development Center, dozens of top Bay State education leaders were unequivocal in their recommendations. They agree that Massachusetts should enlist a lead agency to evaluate current programs, provide technical assistance on a regional basis, and coordinate local efforts. We must develop a focused strategy for programs that target the ages and grades where our efforts will most likely result in science career interest and choices. That’s just part of the solution—it’s equally important that we identify and evaluate the best science teacher preparation, professional development programs and curricula, and develop a library of what’s working. Our science curricula must align with these assessments, and with higher education and job entrance requirements. It is imperative that we work to ensure the equitable distribution of resources with attention to our districts with the fewest resources.
As we press for progress, we will be looking for signs that state leaders are serious about science. Expectations are high. Governor Patrick will soon appoint a Secretary of Education, a newly-created Cabinet-level post, and in July a new Commissioner of Education takes over. The governor has also promised to push for more dollars for education, and the Readiness Project, the governor’s 10-year strategic plan to compete in a global society, will soon release its own suggestions for improving education in the Commonwealth.
It is clear that any efforts must start with a statewide “master plan.” At the very least, such a plan would allocate additional funds for science learning and teacher training and spell out where we need to be and how to get there. The plan would ensure students are able to meet 21st century challenges and would build bridges between our business community and higher education.
Given our many science-rich organizations, corporations, and world-class universities, no state is better poised to lead the way in producing the next generation of scientists and the next generation of science literate citizens. Let’s take advantage of the momentum coming out of this week’s conference to move closer to that goal.